An original travel essay written in CW 352: Creative Nonfiction Workshop with Prof. Elizabeth Geoghegan — Spring 2010
We were just two field mice from Illinois who wanted to go Kerouac and Cassidy-about out west for awhile. Following in Kerouac’s footsteps, my Dean, Steve, and I set off in my car, a 1999 Ford Explorer, citrine colored, or a rustic gold as I called it. Maybe it was ironic we drove an Explorer, because that’s all we were doing. We mapped out the route we wanted to take in approximations, but never an exact plan except for getting to Frisco by the eleventh. That way, we paced ourselves to get back in time for work and school—not very Beat, to say the least, but how close could we really get?
We bought a tape deck that we could plug my iPod into as we drove so that we didn’t have to search and search through radio stations, tweaking the knob through static until we found something, something, anything we could tap our foot or thump our fingers to. This way we could flip on The Rolling Stones as we rolled from one place to the next, Cat Stevens when road construction flustered us and we needed to find our happy places or Led Zeppelin when a cool breeze rushed through our hair. At night, we folded the grey, cloth backseats down and laid out two sleeping mats for camping in the back seat that became our bed, big as one and a quarter single beds. The mats were a bit big, so they edges rested on the wheel wells, which made the bed sort of cup our bodies and roll us into the middle while we slept. Yet, somehow we fit semi-comfortably. Steve’s 6’6” and I’m 6’2”, but our legs weren’t the problem. The problem was when we woke up in the middle of the night and we had both slumped into the middle of the bed into a position that could look like spooning to people staring through our semi-tinted back windows.
I had read On the Road that winter and was itching for a trip of my own. At a teacher’s suggestion, I read The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test until my brain ached from a 400 page acid trip. Soon I picked up Big Sur and felt Kerouac’s pain as he slipped into madness, and knew I wanted to go to the Pacific Highway. I read Gary Snyder Poems, Ginsberg Poems, Old Bull Lee’s Junkie, and excerpts from Dharma Bums and Visions of Cody—it wasn’t much, but it was enough. It was enough to get me excited about the world and what I wasn’t seeing. It was enough to make me realize I was, like so, so many, floating inside a transparent bubble on the verge of popping on the closest bristly object, but never quite pricking anything. It seemed so clear: leaving was the only way out—not that I was unhappy, but how could I ever learn anything by doing everything the same way every single day?
We wanted to go North to Minnesota and then West all the way to Oregon. South through California, and then east again on some route to be determined later.
We drove north through western Illinois, and into Iowa. In Kickapoo, Illinois, we found bikers behind a quick-mart we stopped at, slapping each other on the back, passing around eighteen-packs of bud light, slugging drinks, and laughing with each other. It was bike week in Sturgis, and they were merely the beginning of the metric shit-ton of bikers we were about to see. It was good to see them getting in a few drinks before hitting the road again. Behind the bikers stood at a statue of a bear holding a fishing pole, wearing high-water boots and a bucket hat. Steve and I couldn’t help but marvel at it.
“What city builder thought that a bear ‘gone fishin’ was the ideal statue for this place?
Who knew bears were so prevalent in America?
We hopped on I-35 and headed north through Iowa, finally ending up in Minnesota at the end of the first night. We got off the highway just after the intersection of highway 90 and 35; finding appropriate lodging in the parking lot of a Best Western. We slept in the car that night, and in the morning, after the complimentary breakfast for people who stayed at the hotel (which we felt we qualified as), we began our trek westward through Minnesota on highway 90. We soon began to hate Minnesota. We were promised 10,000 lakes, and where were they? We saw fields and road construction. Endless road construction—lanes closed for forty miles at a time. On top of this, we saw at best 15 lakes. We decided that if anyone were to tell us that Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes, we’d tell them they’re a fucking liar. Nevertheless, southern Minnesota is a beautiful landscape of lakes, farmland, sunflower-yellow crop-dusters flying low overhead, and giant windmills. I’m actually enthralled with windmills—in the opposite way of Don Quixote. The ones in Iowa, Minnesota, and Kansas are majestic. Larger than life. I can do nothing but stare at these fields filled with them. They’re soul-shatteringly soaring white protrusions from the ground that slowly mystify your eyes with a gentle spin—with fields, and neighboring fields full of them; they appear to be what’s being grown.
In South Dakota, Steve fell asleep. I had never seen a Hell’s Angel before, and when we saw a troupe of them riding towards Sturgis, I woke Steve with glee.
“Steve! Steve! Look! Hell’s Angels!”
He awoke, groggy and disgruntled, and swung the straight black hair from his eyes. “What the fuck?!?”
“I just wanted to let you know were right by some Hell’s Angels. It’s like The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Trip; you know, without the drugs and booze. Well, at least not in us.”
Steve squinted. “Shut the fuck up.” And he went back to sleep.
I watched the Angels with a bit of awe and fear. They road at seventy-five miles per hour, and I’d let them get ahead of me a little ways before catching up so I could watch them some more. They flashed one another hand motions. I was curious. Finally, the leader gave one and they all slowed down and fell behind us. I didn’t know what this meant—rape the white kids in the Explorer? It turns out, no. They merely sniffed out a pig a brief distance. I tapped my breaks and thanked those satanic angels for their guidance.
I don’t know who has and who hasn’t heard of Wall Drug, but you begin to notice signs for it within the first five minutes of being in South Dakota—that and the Corn Palace, but who gives a shit about anything made of corn? Wall Drug is located in the small town of Wall, South Dakota, and little did we know, it has over 500 miles of billboards along interstate 90—of which, we saw far too many. Inevitably, we asked ourselves, “What the fuck is a wall drug?” But all that the signs say are, Blah-Blah miles to Wall Drug.
Free ice water at Wall Drug!
Free Donuts for truck drivers at Wall Drug!
X,Y,Z at Wall Drug.
South Dakota, although beautiful, is an endless hellhole of a state. The billboards make the state feel never-ending. When we had seen at least two hundred of them, we decided that all of these signs should be rewritten, South Dakota, This Bitch Will Never End, and we tried to one-up Wall Drugs’ signs, Live dinosaurs, human skeletons—WD.
Come to Wall Drug or die!
And we kept building them in our minds.
Free herpes at Wall Drug.
In the midst of his ascension, Jesus said “Fuck Heaven, I’m going to Wall Drug!”—From the book of Wall Drug 6:3
Needless to say, we stopped at Wall Drug.
It was an intensely magical place. There were full-figured turkeys with peacock feathers and bushy-tailed rabbits with antler horns that abounded in the form of statues, stuffed animals, and t-shirts. At first we thought Wall Drug was in the business of playing God, but it turns out they’re in the business of selling worthless crap and cluttering America’s interstates with billboards and signs. The rabbits with antler horns are called jackalopes, and they are in-fact imaginary. AWall Drug employee told us that they’re the state animal—to which I was quite pleased—however, I chose not to double-check this in the fear of my hopes being crushed.
West of Wall Drug, near the Black Hills, it was windy. The car perpetually swayed to the left of the lane and my hands brought it back to the middle again and again. I did all I could to keep us from looking like drunk drivers losing ourselves in Electric Ladyland. We parked at a rest stop to switch drivers and stretch our legs, but found ourselves drowning in orange and black apparel in a sea of bikers. We went inside to walk and make calls, escaping the wind that whipped skin cells from our faces and made our skin red and blotchy. I waited outside the bathroom for Steve next to a Hell’s Angel. He had faded blue jeans, a bald head with a shadow that ringed the edges, the beginnings of a beard, and the black leather vest on top of a long grey sleeved shirt with orange lettering on the chest. For some reason I felt nervous next to Hell’s Angels. I thought again about Ken Kessey’s ranch and the Angels guzzling beer, rubbing their beards and running wild.
Like Neal Cassady, Steve’s got a side that not many people see. He’d do anything for me he could. Some nights, he drinks himself into a rampage, but on others he’s content to sit on back porches—20×20, boxed in by trees but open enough for a celestial canopy—and count the stars, feel the wind envelope his skin and flitter his hair like the leaves that surround us, mouthing Pink Floyd Lyrics and pondering Tomorrow. He has a motto that he fully embraces, “Just live for today,” and I counter argue his motto with, “If all we ever did was live for today, we’d never have the tomorrow that’s possible.” It’s a circular argument, and we’re dizzy afterwards. Even though we both want to live up to Steve’s motto, it seems like we rarely do. I think we’re both, deep down, scared of life so much that it’s too hard to do. Then again, I’d be lying if I said I’ve met anyone who I thought could. And it’s such a shame, because we think we’re the ones who are mad to live and mad for those who are mad to live, with a go-go-go attitude we pool our strengths until we burn up in the sky and explode like bottle rockets, yellow ripples in the cosmic sea, souls uncoiled like spider webs outside Heaven’s gates, and yet we’re the ones who can’t commit to today and are scared that tomorrow might not come.
The best part about South Dakota is that it ends and Wyoming begins. Wyoming is a beautiful state. It’s overflowing with grasslands, rolling hills, tangible clouds, white-topped mountains, mounds of light brown dirt with odd dark brown rocky protuberances reaching for the sky, and rocky land speckled with green shrubbery.
However, there is something that encompasses and surpasses all of these things—a little-known National Park by the name of Yellowstone. Going west on Highway 14 to, there’s an area called Bear Country. When we learned that we were in bear country, things began to change. There were bear signs of all kinds warning us of potential bear dangers, where to buy bear repellent, and even of how to get to a bear farm. We became quite excited and we scoured the lands for the sight of a bear.
There were rivers running along gravely banks, high hills, lakes, and trees; but no bears. We began seeing bear mirages. Large rocks looked like bears. Small trees were bears. Clumps of dirt—bears. I couldn’t bear it.
“Hey, Steve? Say we started mixing English and Spanish, would we call little bears bearitos?”
“Not under any circumstances.”
“Okay, well, what if we hit a bear with our car? I think I can speak for both of us when I say that we would feel bad. So bad. I mean, I think if we hit one and killed it, we would have to drag it off the road, right? You know, dig a whole and give it a proper funeral. But if we did that, don’t you think we should just call it a burial?”
“How long have you been thinking about this?”
“Steve, stop living in the past.”
In the last portion of Bear Country before Yellowstone, it rained. When we finally made it into the park, we drove on roads that weaved around rocky retaining walls that supported hills of green grass, shrubs, and skinny birch trees—when all of a sudden we had to stop. The rain drained off of the rocks in concentrated streams that slid down the dark brown rocks, crashing from one to the next like baby waterfalls. We pulled into the turn-out so we could get out and get up-close. We ran about looking at waterfalls, finding a better one and yelling for the other to come immediately, amazed just to see water spattering against rocks. It took all of five minutes for Yellowstone to enchant us.
“Illinois needs to invest in some fucking waterfalls!” Steve said.
As we moved through the park, we saw mountains. As captivated as we were with the waterfalls, we were maybe even more-so by the view of the Rocky Mountains surrounding the 136 square miles of Yellowstone Lake. We explored a portion of the shore line, climbing onto rocks, watching geese sway up and down on the waves, and squirrels scavenge around trash cans. While we looked at a map of where we were along the western thumb, an older man with silver hair and glasses approached us.
“I noticed you boys’re from Illinois. I grew up there, myself. So, what are you doing out here?”
“We’re on a road trip. Going out west.”
“Where you boys going?”
“All we know is we gotta get to San Francisco by the eleventh.”
“Hmm, never been there.” He turned to face the water lapping at the chunks of grey rock that make up the shore before it turns into coarse gravel. “This is sure a beautiful place though, eh?”
“Oh, yeah. Of course.”
We all just stared at the water—something Minnesota lacked. There was nothing else to do, nor anything else to want to do. Look at the mountains in the distance. Look at the geese waddling in front of their young Look at Yellowstone Lake—so expansive that it can be seen from space.
This man told us that the volcano sometimes has small eruptions under water, but you’d never see it. “This is a volcano?” I thought. “How did I not realize that?”
“You boys know this is a super volcano, right? Do you realize what would happen if this erupted? Do you know how many people would die?” he asked.
Does this guy not like me? Why is he telling us this? I’m here to spot a bear scratching its back against a tree, or standing on its hind legs reaching for a bee-hive—not to think about how many people would burn alive if this volcano let loose.
“People within about 65 miles would die due to the explosion. No telling how many would die because of the volcanic ash that would spread over the country.”
Steve and I looked at each other. “Yeah, that sucks. Yeah….Have you seen any bears?”
“Well,” he raked his fingertips across his chin, “they’re harder to spot this time of year, but I’ve seen one or two on the cam. Did you boys know they’ve got cameras set up at different points? They got ‘em linked up to the intranet so that people can watch”
“No, we didn’t. Did you know that, Steve?”
“Yeah, me either. Whelp, I guess we should be going now—gotta get On The Road.”
When Steve and I got in the car, he turned to me, “Who the fuck hates their life so much that they would watch that?”
As we kept moving through the park towards Old Faithful, we saw knee-high crows bounding up the side of the road, tiny squirrels sprinting around, deer, three grazing bison, a wolf, but no bears. We could see small thermal pools and puddles of bubbling mud on the side of the road. The sulfur made everything smell like rotting eggs and sour milk, but we didn’t mind because of the beauty.
Sadly, the worst part of Yellowstone is the main attraction. The spectacle that Old Faithful has become feels like a slap in the face to Mother Nature. People sit and stand around, waiting the approximated 90 minutes for this underground spring-water and steam to shoot out of a giant volcano and amaze people sitting on ridged aluminum benches, pressing little boxes to their eyes. Humans always want to watch train wrecks—not that Old Faithful is one, but it could be. Old-Crazy-Man-With-Too-Much-Information told us that water would kill you. He said someone who worked at the park was fired for urinating into the geyser. As Steve and I sat on those bleachers, we talked about what it would have been like if only the geyser could have erupted at that perfect moment. We wondered if, “Urinating Man Burns Alive in Super Volcano” would have deterred a lot of people from coming here, or if it would have merely spurred them on to come stand around the active volcano.
The area was thick with tourists and there was no magic or beauty in any of the scene like there was throughout most of the park—where barely anyone else is around. There was a heavy population of Asian people snapping pictures of everything they could, holding peace signs and their thumbs up; German people with shorts down to their thighs, showing finely paled legs. It was like Jack’s description of families in Big Sur driving thousands of miles in large cars, staring at giant maps, the husband wearing a goofy hat and sun glasses—listening to and obeying the commands of his wife—taking his pants off while driving to avoid creases, the kids in the backseats fighting forever about nothing, and it made me shudder a few times. It made me think back to the times my family went on road trips—to how my brother and I would fight in the backseat. To how unappreciative we probably were of my parents doing anything for us. It made me never want to be that husband. It made me want to only go out with other people who want to explore the world and look into the infinite beauty and ugliness nature and humanity have to offer.
The only other thing I thought of while sitting on the cold bleachers was, “What if this supernova volcano were to explode right now?” Old Faithful depressed me—I tried to think about bears. It was unbearable to see so many people packed into this area. There was no thrill. There was 75 minutes of waiting, followed by 120 feet of water, steam, and misery.
Steve didn’t like touristy areas either. We told jokes. We walked around. We laughed at people. I was just glad Steve was there to keep up my spirits up, because it feels like you know who your real friends are when you can talk about everything and nothing, and both are equally satisfying. Even if we were tourists too, we felt like elite tourists. We felt like we knew something they all didn’t, even though we fell for the Wall Drug scam and sat waiting to see Old Faithful. That didn’t matter though, because we just packed our bags and left without much of a plan. We were different.
We drove through the rest of Yellowstone without stopping. On the other side of the park was Montana. We were there for approximately ten minutes, so it didn’t rub me in a good or bad way. (You got off easy this time, Montana.) After Montana, came Idaho, and it definitely rubbed me in a bad way. We drove through central Idaho to Oregon, and as a general rule, don’t go to Idaho. It’s a barren wasteland of tumultuous rock that cascades across gritty, reddish-brown dirt. There’s an intense amount of bugs at night time; so thick we could barely see through our windshield, even as the wipers slapped and scratched at the blood and thoraxes hailed upon us. The beautiful parts, if there are any, should be usurped by other states and the rest sold to Canada. One of two nice places in Idaho are Boise, where we ate wonderful Lamb Grinder Sandwiches, and the other is Idaho Falls where, as it turns out, there’s a beautiful waterfall that we slept right next to without even knowing. We arrived at nighttime after a furious ascent and descent through a ragged bug-infested territory on the escape from Yellowstone’s sulfurous stench, and almost ended up parking our car right next to a public bathroom that happened to be right next to the fall. However, we were afraid of Idaho gangs that possibly do run-bys, hurling potatoes from brown satchels at their sides, laughing with glee as they chomped on the remains and fled the scene. So, instead, we found a hotel fifty feet behind us; parked in the parking lot, and climbed into our backseat for the evening. In the morning when returning to the bathroom, we found the waterfall and thought Idaho might not be too bad. Of course, we were wrong; but we did get Complimentary breakfast at the hotel next door to ours, and once again, it would have been rude not to accept.
Throughout the rest of Idaho, there was nothing to look at, so we talked. We must have listened to Time seventeen times on our trip, and somewhere between the fifth and the ninth time—I lose track of when—Steve said, “You know what my mom told me last week? More church shit. Something about how could so many people be wrong about Christianity? I didn’t ask her to count Muslims.”
Sometime between Money and Brain Damage I said, “Doesn’t it seem weird that one of the main symbols of Christianity is a sheep? I always thought we weren’t supposed to follow something blindly. You know, just because someone else jumps off the bridge, should I?”
“Yeah, that’s weird,” he said.
“I mean, fuck yeah I’d jump off if I knew there was water underneath, and I could make sure there were no rocks where I was going to land. I’m also not partial to sharks or alligators. Or—”
“Shut the hell up,” he said.
There was a short silence before I said, “Religion sucks.”
“We suck,” he said.
For awhile, Idaho infected Oregon with some sort of STD that made it an enormous land of dirt and rock. There was nothing but more road construction. Soon the Cascades showed themselves, and Oregon demonstrateed its true beauty of thick trees and mountains all the way to the coast. When we made it to Eugene, we went south to find Highway 101, and there’s nothing like driving the Pacific Highway (Highway 101 south to Frisco and 1 after Frisco city limits). Driving south, our lane wobbled along the coast, never quite stable, zigging in and zagging out, pushing inland and pulling back towards the water. On a clear day, when we looked out at ocean, it was hard to tell where the water ended and the sky began. We pulled out of trees and twisted around the bend, a family of cows resting on a patch of grass between the road and a cliff, no guardrail to keep them from wandering into the road, walruses layed in the sand, big and white and lazy, barking at the sun. We climbed a hill, around and around, being sucked to the top by curiosity and nowhere else to go, and we slithered down to the other side, stuck behind the cars who followed the suggested speeds of the turns (5 mph, 10 mph) until we could zip by on a straight away that only lasted long enough to let our hearts race so fast they have might exploded if we didn’t get around before the next camper popped up from under a hill. Horses galloped in fields to the east and yellow caution signs depicted men sitting on horses as something to keep our eyes peeled for.
Speed limits enforced by airplane.
5 mph. 55 mph. 10 mph. Blink and were through a town. If the windows weren’t down, we weren’t breathing in the air—cool and almost numbing, fresh with a hint of salt and sand and the occasional cow dropping. Hitchhikers with black packs and scraggily beards plucked their thumbs out south at the outskirts of towns, passed by again and again but eventually snagging a ride.
All the way to Frisco and further yet.
In San Francisco, the Promised Land overflowing with beards and flannel, home of Howl and Grandfather Beat, we stopped at the hotel we booked before we left Illinois. We had to use Steve’s Iphone to navigate there. We fed it the address and Steve turned into a maniac. He yelled at me to give him directions and then the next one in advance, and half-jokingly tongue lashed me when I faltered. He swerved two lanes at a time to make a left turn or get in line for a quick right. He was in his driving element. He must have channeled Neal Cassady.
It was the only hotel we booked ahead of time, and we decided if we were going to be sleeping in our car many a night, we could dish out for a nicer place—big mistake. The place was far too nice for the likes of us who walked in wearing sunglasses and sleeveless shirts and flannel, lugging a trash bag of dirty clothes we hoped to wash in a laundry machine begging for dimes. Red red carpet lay out all over the floor, modern art on the walls, a nice bar on the side of the check-in desk with alcohol we didn’t dare dream of because of the price, an elevator without elevator music, but birds chirping incessantly and sounding like they were stuck in the shaft about to be squashed—unable to ever squawk again.
Our room was lush with a queen sized bed, fluffy pillows, more modern art with red paint spread over a canvas in some way I didn’t understand with lights above to maximize our aesthetic pleasure, a 45 inch television in front of the bed, granite tabletop on the nightstands, and a view of skyscrapers outside our window. I felt we were out of our element, Steve felt it was just right for him and he laughed and giggled. The bathroom had more granite, a green tub, and white tile floor. Room for five. We laughed and I said, “Shit. If I were a girl, I’d totally let somebody bang me in there.”
When showered and shambled through the city looking for China Town. With no luck on our own, we followed a large group of Asians until we found it. Shop after shop with Chinese lettering on top and food below; food, endless food; people speaking into megaphones in foreign tongues about their cuisine or maybe how dumb Americans were—we couldn’t decide but hoped for the latter. Headless fish sprawled out in ice baths outside fish markets, big as our arms and still bleeding. We ate at the first buffet place we saw and ate some of everything—seconds on what we couldn’t identify.
In City Lights Bookstore, I paced about the wooden floors looking around for my heroes until I found the stairs leading to the second floor, with pictures of Dylan smoking cigarettes with Gingsberg, Cassady and Kerouac and all the gang finding appearances in one way or another—unidentifiable figures in their underwear at readings I didn’t remember. I informed Steve on every figure I knew, showed him books I’d read and ones I hadn’t, telling him why they were great (or why I’d heard they were great). It was a quaint store that I loved, and I couldn’t resist buying Howl and Other Poems while there—it felt appropriate.
That night, we were in the hotel and we broke out the alcohol we had brought along. I took shots of cheap, disgusting vodka with soda chasers and Steve drank Southern Comfort. I was drinking at a normal pace, not wanting to destroy my brain like I had so many times before (especially in a big city this time, unfamiliar to us); but Steve didn’t want to go out until later. I asked when. He said later. I said how about now? He said let me finish this movie. So I started power drinking. I took shots with reckless abandon, feeling the burn twist and turn down my throat and corrode my stomach.
When we were finally leaving, Steve said, “How you feeling?”
“How do you want me to be feeling?” I smiled so hard my cheeks hurt. My mind was falling away.
“Oh, shit.” He knew what was to come.
We walked the streets, not knowing where we were going, looking for, or what to ask for. I proposed, numerous times, that I would be willing to ask the good-looking girls walking by or ahead of us, and Steve said, “No. You’re fucking hammered. They’re gonna think you want to rape them or something when you go gator-stomping towards them and mumble your drunken gibberish.”
I have no idea what I said in reply, or if I even could. The next day, Steve showed me the pictures of me passed out in a Jack in the Box, vomiting in our hotel toilet, and told me that I had a half-hour discussion with a homeless man about poetry, tried to debate why Emily Dickenson was an important poet in history, and gave this man my email address so that we could exchange writing.
“How the hell is the homeless guy gonna email you? I can’t wait to see if he does.”
I guess hindsight’s not always 20/20.
There were so many different kinds of people packed into San Francisco. Hobos ambled from street to street with shaggy dogs on leashes, dogs that had gone since the last summer without a haircut, or they posted up on the ground with their backs against a building, holding signs: Veteran. Homeless. Poor. Hungry. While across the street, a man in a suite behind a table waved hand puppets and sang songs about a hungry fat cat that wore hats and went Meow. Meow. Meow. A man stood on his stoop in a black leather thong, strings attached to his “pants” clamped to his nipples, and he looked at me like I was dressed ridiculously for wearing a World Wildlife Foundation t-shirt. We paced the sidewalk with a business man snarking into a cell phone on one side and a 6’4” transvestite on the other. At night, a man on a corner with a stereo cranked early Dylan music and sang lyrics as loud as he could as a cable car sparked by, while yelling at pedestrians crossing the street to watch their step, because the end was coming soon.
We took highway 101 the rest of the way past Cambria and got onto Highway 46 to Wasco. In the outskirts of Wasco, we saw fields of oil derricks dipping up and down, burrowing and sucking that priceless substance from the earth day and night. We slept in a cheap hotel that night and made our way into the southern part of Sequoia National Forrest, and 155 to 178 to 395,483, 871, 122: numbers jumbling in our heads. Turned around and headed south in Woody until we figured out where we were. Back towards Death Valley. 190 all the way through dry heat that made my car rumble and frighten our non-mechanical brains (I had just learned how to change a tire before I left my house). Red rock walled us in and lay gravelly on the road as it crunched under our tires on sharp turns I took too fast. Steve had enough of my driving and demanded he be put behind the wheel after the ranger station where we bought park passes we didn’t need. Everything flattened after that. We really were in a desert then, once an ocean, the hot air not able to escape because wind currents get caught by the mountains and hot air is circulated back through the valley (hence the intense heat). We belted out lyrics from “Rubber Soul” as I tapped my foot and Steve thumped his hand against the wheel; seeing sand dune after sand dune, sandy cliffs in the distance and more sand dunes and sand dunes, the temperature gauge read 111, 112, 115—we prayed the air conditioner wouldn’t quit.
“Hey, Steve, you think we’ll see a sand bear here?”
“Yeah. I do. I really think we will.”
“How cool would that be if one just popped up from under the sand, and shook its coat like a wet dog?”
“I think it’s gonna happen.”
Outside Death Valley, Nevada isn’t much better. We drove through it to Las Vegas and, neither of us being 21, only stopped to eat at this place we had heard so much about: In and Out Burger. It deserved the stop. We drove all the way to Arizona to stay with Steve’s uncle for a few nights.
We’d been sitting for days, our elevation constantly changing, and the day before we were below sea level. So, we decided we’d climb a mountain—the highest one Arizona had to offer. Just outside Flagstaff rests Humphrey’s peak, our challenge for that day.
We stood at the beginning of the trail, eyeing up our challenge.
“Maybe we should take our shoes off.”
“Why the fuck would we do that?”
“You know, so we could say we climbed our first mountain barefoot.”
Steve closed his eyes and shook his head slowly. “I could just tell you you’re fucking stupid and we could move on.”
He was right. I was fucking stupid. The terrain changed from hard dirt to hard dirt with rocks sprinkled on top that ached to gouge, trip, sprain ankles, and be angrily thrown at trees when one of the aforementioned actions materialized; and throughout the trail there were shallow chasms that craved the opportunity to swallow a foot.
Fifteen minutes into the trek, it became harder to breathe. The area in Illinois we’re from is a few hundred feet above sea level, and our hike started at 8000. Therefore, after the vigorous sitting sessions we had been engaged in during the last week and a half, it was essential to break every forty minutes or so. When we did, Steve chomped on Nature Valley bars that he bought that morning, eating one of the bars almost every time we sat down until they were all gone.
He pulled the green foil off the bar and shoved the wrapper into the box. “You want a Nature Valley bar?”
“Are you serious?” Steve was offended by my decline. “Do you have any idea how good these are for you?”
“Each one of these bars has,” he read from the box, crunching on granola falling from his mouth as he informed me, “90 calories, 2% of your daily iron, 2 grams of protein, 4% of your daily fiber, and 5% of your daily carbs.
The look he gave me was one of complete incomprehensiveness at my total insanity for not immediately ingesting as many Nature Valley bars as possible.
As we rose higher and higher, our breaks came more frequent. We were passed by an old man at lunch time. At a later break, we looked down the trail and saw two girls bounding their way towards us—five or ten minutes behind us—and we immediately decided we couldn’t be passed by girls and an old man. But, it was unavoidable. These girls moved at a Sonic-like speed that was faster than any human had ever moved: somewhere between a cheetah and a tornado. We were soon overtaken.
When they were passing, I asked how much further to the top. We were sure it was only another hour or so.
“Ehh, you’re probably a little more than half way right now. It’ll probably take us two more hours.”
I didn’t think it was possible for my ears to bleed by receiving painful information, but it happened. If these Cyclone Cats needed two more hours, it would take us three or four.
The absolute worst part of these girls passing us—besides emasculation—was we could over hear one of them talking about the ecstasy-filled night she had just had. Steve and I had a good night of sleep, a hearty Mexican breakfast at some place in town with a Grateful Dead theme, and an early start, yet we were so easily passed. We were no Dharma Bums.
Near the summit, past the tree line, the scenery changed from a kind-hearted forest with terrible footfalls to something that resembled the path Sam and Frodo took to Mordor. There we were, so close to the summit, and when we reached the top, there was another summit after that. And then another one. We were finally 100 feet from the actual summit when, as some divine, sick joke, two hobbit-looking creatures came hoofing up the trail and passed us. One of these creatures even wore sandals.
In the end, the summit was incredible and worth the climb. Humphrey’s Peak, the tallest mountain in Arizona stands at 12,673 feet, and we made it to the top. The climb down was terrible and Steve suffered some sort of ankle injury; so we returned with our heads hurting from huffing the dust brought up from footfalls on the ground, our bellies ached with hunger, and we were dirty.
It was dark. We were in southern Colorado on Highway 550 pointed north in a turnout, parked for the night. I’m not saying it was intelligent, I’m saying it was convenient. I didn’t like looking over the edge of the road our car was five feet from and seeing a steep slope that went on for two hundred feet. A rocky tumbling slope where large trees sprouted every twenty feet to stop our rolling car after a drunk driver or a semi-truck with its breaks out slammed into us and pushed us off the road. Oh well, we could see the stars. God took his needle and pricked out a hundred wholes for us to stare at outside our windows as we talked and lay waiting for sleep.
Our night conversations were usually the silliest and most ridiculous. We told jokes and talked about nothing. That night we rolled over the edge of silly after a while and talked about friends.
We may not have been on rooftop tenements contemplating jazz, but we were Dharma Bums hiking Humphrey’s Peak, strolling the pacific ocean seashore, eating lunch next to waterfalls, trying to coast our car down a mountain road in the Cascades in neutral with no break—honoring Neal Cassidy’s feats of doing the same thing, except with a bus named Further—and sleeping in our car in a southern Colorado national forest turnout—holding our breath every time a semi truck drove past; and we were contemplating philosophy, eastern and western religions, problems with society, friends, ourselves; and then in the next breath debating something that didn’t matter at all. We spent one hundred hours with each other in a car over the course of eleven days, and the company was just as important as the sights.
We rolled further over the edge and talked about the future, love, girls to talk to when we got back, and the girls we should have talked to so long ago, crashing into a pile of what ifs? and why nots? But landing together.
—written by Brian Rocca